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Helen and Sol Krawitz Holocaust Memorial Education Center

Shimon and Sara Birnbaum Jewish Community Center

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During the Holocaust, many courageous individuals fought back against the Nazis, taking up arms or sabotaging Nazi plans. Acts of resistance took place in Nazi ghettos and camps and by partisan members of national and political resistance movements across German-occupied Europe. Those who resisted acted despite extremely difficult and dangerous conditions; the armed power of the Nazis was so great that the possibilities of success were narrow for civilians who had limited access to weapons. Moreover, the German tactic of “collective responsibility” was a major deterrent to acts of resistance. This retaliation tactic held entire families and communities responsible for individual acts of armed and unarmed resistance. The fact that thousands did fight back is remarkable.

Resistance in the Holocaust took on many forms-armed and unarmed, physical and spiritual. Those who resisted spiritually continued to make their own choices in a world that allowed for no choice. They acted with perseverance and resolve, and refused to allow the Nazis to rob them of their own personal identities. Some resisted spiritually by continuing religious traditions or preserving cultural institutions even after they were outlawed. Even a small act, like choosing to read a book in a ghetto environment that consisted of only work, sleep, and meager rations was a form of spiritual resistance. Some resisted the Nazis’ efforts to break their spirits by writing; gathering evidence about what was happening reflected a conscious effort to undermine Nazi efforts to hide the truth about the Holocaust. The Oneg Shabbat archive, a collection of reports, diaries, and documents about ghetto life, represents resistance through writing in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Helga Weissova, a young girl imprisoned in Terezin, refused to allow the Nazis to break her creative spirit. Her first drawing in Terezin was fanciful: two children building a snowman. She showed the picture to her father, and his advice to her was: “Draw what you see.” After that, for three years in Terezin, Helga drew 100 pictures of what she saw. Although the Nazis forbade photographs, they could not stop Helga from drawing.

In ghettos around Europe, Jewish youth groups continued to operate despite hunger, cold, and disease. These groups helped their members obtain food and medication. At group meetings, members discussed Israel and Jewish culture, and learned Hebrew. These meetings offered intellectual stimulation for young people who could no longer attend school. Youth groups were one of the only ways for young people to hold onto ideals, maintain social and cultural activities, and escape the immediate reality. Esther Dublin, a survivor from Lodz, discusses her involvement in the Hashomer Hatzair youth group:

“We would meet twice a week (after work hours), sing songs in Hebrew, prepare for aliya to Israel, learn about the land, communications, and first aid. The older members taught us about Chaim Nahman Bialik. We sang techezakna, and shouted ‘We will build the Galil!’ We organized evenings dedicated to authors and holidays, and arranged mutual aid organizations. We felt that this was our resistance against the Germans.”

(Testimony courtesy of Yad Vashem Archives)

The many different acts of resistance during the Holocaust, physical and spiritual, have a powerful legacy today. They represent the wide variety of ways to stand up for righteousness and truth in our own lives. If we allow those who resisted during the Holocaust to be our role models, then their choices from the past should inform and inspire our choices today.

Jewish resistance is a particularly pertinent theme during Hanukkah. Hanukkah is not only about commemorating miracles from the ancient past, nor is it exclusively about victories in battle between the years 167-164 B.C.E. Hanukkah reminds us of the kind of courageous faith that showed itself in the Maccabean revolt long ago. We encourage you to identify with the courage and faith of the Maccabees by sharing some of the remarkable stories of resistance from this 10 Minutes of Torah with your family this Hanukkah.

We conclude with the words of Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg in The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays. Here, Rabbi Greenberg discusses some of the ways that Hanukkah can continue to inspire action, and resistance, among modern Jews:

“The battle of Hanukkah is being fought again, not in military engagements but through creating family ties, competing educationally, communicating values and messages, holding and deepening loyalties. It can only be won by partial solutions, visionary persistence, and realistic dreams…

Pessimists and assimilationists have more than once informed Jews that there is no more oil left to burn. As long as Hanukkah is studied and remembered, Jews will not surrender to the night. The proper response, as Hanukkah teaches, is not to curse the darkness but to light a candle.” (pp. 281-282)

Display commemorating celebrations of Hanukah during captivity.
Credit: holocaustandhumanity.Org, “Resistance and Hanukkah”